Ryan Gosling turns in his best performance yet in Half Nelson, a frustrating film about a teacher so close to being great but who never manages to find his way. Gosling has garnered an Oscar nomination for this role, and has finally put himself in a position to greatly expand his career choices.
Gosling plays Dan Dunne, an optimistic inner city teacher who constantly veers away from his school's dictated curriculum to appeal to his students. His students seem to like him for the most part, but he doesn't like himself. Dunne spends most of his time either teaching, washing dishes or snorting coke at bars with strange women. He has romantic feelings for a fellow teacher, but after a successful beginning his bad habits get in the way. His only salvation is one of his students, a 13-year old girl named Drey (Shareeka Epps), who he recognizes as someone on the verge of slipping through the cracks. Can they save each other, or are both victims of circumstance?
Gosling, who has turned in consistently good performances in little known films (The Believer, The United States of Leland) and pretty good performances in more mainstream movies such as The Notebook and Murder by Numbers, is definitely the highlight of this depressing film. He mumbles his way through the movie, looking as though he truly is on drugs the whole time, and while at times you want to shake him and tell him to stop, you feel strangely sympathetic for the man. He does so many things to screw himself over, and yet you continue to hope that the next time he'll finally come around. If not for so many other good performances this year, Gosling would have had a good shot at Oscar gold.
As for his counterpart, Epps is pretty good, though my problem with her is not her acting ability, but simply her looks. She's not ugly, but she looks like she's twenty-something, and this fact was distracting throughout the movie. Her voice is rather deep and her cheekbones high for such a young girl (if she really is that young), and thus it is a more of a stretch to see her as a child. A different casting choice based on looks alone may have helped me relate to the character a bit more.
Half Nelson, overall, is pretty good, but it rides pretty heavily on Gosling's performance. The story and situations are good, but even at 106 minutes, it felt a bit long at times. There are a few stretches that are a bit boring, and Gosling's character goes in circles so many times it becomes utterly frustrating. While it suffers from some pacing problems, the movie is still well-directed. One of the most interesting aspects of the movie may or may not have been intentional, but there is a strange sexual tension between the two leads, despite their difference in age. It may just be that my friends and I have sick minds, but it seems like Fleck seems to suggest some kind of attraction between the two, even if it is just to play on people's expectations that a man as messed up as this man only has a few ways to go further into the gutter. Watch the film and see for yourself.
Half Nelson is a good but not great movie, but Gosling delivers his best performance to date. It is worth watching, even if just for the performance.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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